It’s easy to think of the NSX existing only as it did in the early ‘90s, with Ayrton Senna giving the car a wash, or Ayrton Senna helping fine-tune the chassis, or Ayrton Senna thrashing the car on track while wearing loafers. But by the end of its life, the NSX was not so fresh and cutting edge.
Honda (or Acura here in the U.S.) launched the NSX in 1990. They killed it in 2005. And they pretty much rot on the vine for more than a decade, virtually unchanged. The competition, meanwhile, made huge steps forward in terms of performance and steadily ate away at the car’s edge in terms of day-to-day ease of use. Ferrari, in particular, was urged on by the NSX to turn the old-school 348 into the still-fresh 355.
What was particularly troubling is that the one time Honda/Acura did bother to update the car, they made it look even worse. They gave the thing a ‘70s-tastic targa top and then killed the now-rightfully-beloved pop-up headlights. By the end it looked like a custom C5 Corvette (I’m looking at you, Matt Farah), and that was not what anyone wanted out of a mid-engine exotic sports car.
On top of that, the NSX cost more than the competition. In the early 2000s, right around when they gave the car its horrible facelift, the NSX started at $90,879. As Car and Driver pointed out, a newer, faster, even all-wheel drive Porsche 911 started in the $70,000 range.
All of this meant that in the mid-2000s, just as the NSX was about to die off, it wasn’t exactly a wildly beloved car. Sure, there was the same sweet V6 engine and the same wonderful handling as ever, but the fresh spirit of the car was long gone. The car didn’t make sense anymore. It was an overpriced relic, a shadow of its former self, dumbed down in old age.
This was not Senna’s car anymore. Acura let the NSX turn into an overpriced wimp, a safe pseudo-exotic for someone too scared to buy the real thing.
The way it sat limp in the Acura lineup was sad. Sales reflected it. Before the car got its facelift, Acura was only managing to sell 15 NSXs a month.
After it got its guppy fixed face, sales dwindled from around 200 a year through to 2006, when they slumped to 58 total in the United States, as GoodCarBadCar notes. In 2007, sales concluded at a desolate grand total of two.
I remember wishing Acura would just put the car out of its misery.
It pained me to see the car dragged along in the new car market the way it was. And it hurt me as an eager young car enthusiast how Acura let the car wilt. It felt, oddly, a lot like Acura’s other performance car of the time, the RSX. That was, as far as my teenaged eyes could tell, very little but an Integra that was older and fatter and worse.
All that being said, Honda/Acura may have absolutely loved the NSX and tried everything they could to help the car. Remember that the NSX was born during the heyday of Japan’s late ‘80s bubble economy. Honda had money to burn and a plenty of budget for pride when they approved the production of the car.
The ‘90s were not so kind. The economy dropped out back home in Japan, and the US operations got caught up in an unbelievably massive dealership scandal. Any other company would have killed off a halo car like the NSX in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Toyota killed the Supra, Mazda killed the RX-7, Nissan killed the Z, and so on. So again, it’s possible that Honda/Acura fought to keep the car on sale, even knowing that they didn’t have the money to justify a successor generation of the car. For all I know, they were scrounging money from the couches in their offices to bankroll even the mild 2000s facelift.
The sad vibe I got from the NSX may well have been classic tragedy. Maybe I, budding car enthusiast, hated the car because Acura was trying so hard to appeal to me. I do not know.
The new technobarge NSX has sparked some renewed interest in the original, lithe NSX. So it’s worthwhile to remember that the old model was not always so cherished, not always so revered, perhaps even by the company that made it. And it’s good to know how even such a legend like the early NSX could be killed by stagnation.